Mohammad bin Salman and the future of Saudi Arabia

Brian M Downing 

Warrior-king Abdul Aziz ibn Saud gathered tribal forces on the Arabian Peninsula after World War One and established a personal Kingdom in 1932. Since his death in 1953, Saudi Arabia has been ruled by his sons – actually by a clique within his numerous offspring. In recent years Saudi rulers have been long in tooth, to say the least.

Mohammad bin Salman, crown prince and de facto ruler, is only 32. He’s embarked on a highly ambitious and long overdue modernizing agenda for his kingdom and is engaged in a confrontation with Iran. Such a young man could hold the throne for the next sixty years and place his name among great modernizers such as Peter the Great, the Meiji barons, and Ataturk. Alternately, he could lose the throne and see the old warrior-king’s demesne descend into turmoil – or even break apart.

The prince’s agenda 

Industrialization – Perhaps wary of the relatively diverse economy of his Shia rival, the prince hopes to push through a rapid industrialization program. No major power can have an economy depending on one commodity. Nor can a country become a major power without an industrial base, especially one with over half of its population under the age of 25 and facing poor prosepcts.

Synchronization – The prince is sacking hundreds of people in the army and state, replacing them with people in concert with his objectives. It’s uncertain if the shakeup will improve the professionalization of army and state, where key positions have long been bestowed by patrimonial princes.

Confrontation – Sectarian conflict in the Gulf is stronger than it’s been in many centuries. In recent years, the kingdom has forged a strategic alliance with the US, Israel, and the lesser Gulf monarchies. The conflict already has theaters of operation in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and the Gulf waters. It will be long and costly and it could intensify.

Liberalization – The prince is opening up Saudi society, somewhat. Women may soon be able to drive cars, walk in public unescorted, and hold positions in state and industry. The virtue police will have less purview and western media will be more accessible. The process will not entail democratization, only less restrictiveness, as in Iran and Russia. 

Challenging environment 

The Kingdom’s wealth is not as vast as it’s been since OPEC showed its clout in ’73. Oil prices have recovered significantly off the lows of recent years, but this has been accomplished by cutting production through agreements with fellow exporters who will face growing pressure to cheat. So will the prince.

The US is beginning to export oil and gas, and producers in the eastern Mediterranean will follow suit. Renewable energy sources are becoming more attractive and many publics have a marked preference for them over hydrocarbons. American producers will scoff at the notion of production limits and grab markets wherever they can.

The Kingdom is already spending huge amounts of money supporting client states such as Egypt, Pakistan, and Lebanon, and backing proxies in wars raging in Syria and Yemen. Foreign expenditures will have to vie with funds directed toward the domestic industrialization program and longstanding subsidies to the Saudi public.

Internal opposition 

The prince’s agenda will bring opposition from his subjects, some opportunistic, some violent. Coalescence of power in bin Salman’s clique will rankle many of the 5,000 or more princes who’ve been left out in the long-awaited transition to a new generation. They will fight from within remaining positions in the army and state, and perhaps do so in the name of democratic reform. Many princesses will voice disapproval as well.

The industrialization program will almost certainly allocate key positions to the prince’s confidantes, not experienced businessmen – limited though that category may be. The prince wants no independent corporate class that might one day challenge the crown. Claims of favoritism and in efficiency will be heard.

The modernization and liberalization programs will bring heavy criticism from traditionalists who oppose change and from reformist, who want sweeping change. The more forced the programs, the stronger the opposition. Some traditionalists will join ISIL networks, reformists may organize open movements for meaningful change. Not for nothing did Alexis de Tocqueville note the danger despots face when they permit even a modicum of openness.

Alignment with the US and Israel has entailed abandoning the Palestinians, which has caused even the aging king to voice concern. Elsewhere, in tribal expanses and urban districts, Saudis will be angered by the prince’s compromises, perhaps deeply so. The US and Israel have been traditional demons in school curriculum, family lore, and militant pamphlets passed around in hushed gatherings.      

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The prince is taking immense risks. Some of them may not be adequately appreciated by the scion of an exceptionally privileged family. In coming years he may face fiscal woes, state paralysis, military opposition, growing Islamist militancy, and quotidian complaints from the unwieldy youth cohort. Problems may coincide inopportunely.  

Bleak scenarios include attempted coups from the national army and tribal auxiliaries, financial and state paralysis, savage insurgencies, and even fragmentation along sectarian and tribal lines. Some foreign powers will support the Kingdom, others want nothing more than to see it go the way of Libya and Syria. Qaddafi and Assad have seen extremely bleak scenarios play out beneath them, and so might the ambitious prince of Riyadh.

Copyright 2018 Brian M Downing

Brian M Downing is a national security analyst who has written for outlets across the political spectrum. He studied at Georgetown University and the University of Chicago, and did post-graduate work at Harvard’s Center for International Affairs. Thanks to Susan Ganosellis.